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Bringing The Inside Heat: Best ILB Prospects In The American

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Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.
Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images.

True inside linebackers are a dying breed. The days of the big, intimidating, hard-nosed interior linebackers are but a thing of the past. Today’s NFL requires men who are big and hard-hitting but also quick, agile and able to cover backs and receivers. As rare as it is to find a true impact player at this position, The American Athletic Conference boasts several inside linebackers who have the potential to be impact players at the next level and will likely hear their names early in the 2014 NFL Draft.

There's Derrick Mathews, a converted outside linebacker at Houston, who can diagnose plays, cover tight ends and backs, and apply consistent pass rush pressure. Mathews is a promising prospect.

But the top two inside backers in The American are Yawin Smallwood from UConn and Greg Blair from Cincinnati. Which of these two is the best prospect, the one most likely to make the biggest impact on Sundays?

Case for Smallwood

Smallwood has the size (6-foot-3, 244 pounds), athleticism and experience that evaluators look for in an inside linebacker, as well as the speed to make tackles sideline-to-sideline.

Although UConn struggled as a team in its season opener, Smallwood was in his typical tackling machine form, registering 16 total tackles. He also showed an improved ability to cover tight ends and backs throughout the game. Smallwood has shown -- in the past and so far this season -- that he has true three-down potential, something that NFL teams covet.

Case for Blair

Blair is often overlooked by evaluators, usually due to his massive build for a linebacker. In 2012, Blair's playing weight was around 270-pounds, but in 2013 he has completely changed his frame and it is improving his game. "Everybody in the nation is turning into passing, just airing the ball out," said Blair, whom I spoke with at The American media day over the summer. "So I just had to get more in shape."

And with that weight loss, Blair (now listed at 6-2, 252) will be able to cover even more field, which makes him very valuable at the next level. Blair led the Big East in tackles in 2012 and is looking to continue his success in the first season of The American. With his new frame, Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville thinks Blair's stock should rise as well. "I've coached linebackers all my life," Tuberville told me at conference media day.  "I had Ray Lewis and all those guys down at Miami, and the kid can play."

Final Decision

Although both inside linebackers (plus Mathews) have great potential at the next level, Smallwood gets the nod at this point. His combination of size, speed and play-making ability make him such an attractive option to NFL scouts and talent evaluators. When you add that to the coaching he receives from Paul Pasqualoni and his staff, Smallwood has nearly unlimited potential.